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     ROBERT CRAIS: EXCERPT - VOODOO RIVER

CHAPTER ONE

          I met Jodi Taylor and her manager for lunch on the Coast Highway in Malibu, not far from Paradise Cove and the Malibu Colony. The restaurant was perched in the rocks overlooking the ocean, and owned by a chef who had his own cooking show on public television. A saucier. The restaurant was bright and airy, with spectacular views of the coast to the east and the Channel Islands to the south. A grilled tuna sandwich cost eighteen dollars. A side of fries cost seven-fifty. They were called frites. 
     Jodi Taylor said, "Mr. Cole, can you keep a secret?"
     "That depends, Ms. Taylor. What kind of secret did you have in mind?"
     Sid Markowitz leaned forward, as if he viewed me with suspicion. "This meeting. Like I told you on the phone, no one is to know that weíve talked to you, or what weíve discussed, whether you take the job or not. We okay on that?" Sid Markowitz was Jodi Taylorís personal manager, and he looked like a frog.
     "Sure," I said. "Secret. Iím up to that."
     Sid Markowitz didnít seem convinced. "Yeah, you say that now, but I wanna make sure you mean it. Weíre talking about a celebrity here." He made a little hand move toward Jodi Taylor. "We fill you in, you could run to a phone, the Enquirer might pay you fifteen, twenty grand for this."
     I frowned. "Is that all?"
     Markowitz frowned back at me. "Donít joke about that." Very suspicious.
     Jodi Taylor was hiding behind oversized sunglasses, a loose-fitting manís jean jacket, and a blue Dodgers baseball cap pulled low on her forehead. She was without makeup, and her curly, dusky-red hair had been pulled into a pony tail through the little hole in the back of the cap. With the glasses and the baggy clothes and the hiding, she didnít look like the character she played on national television every week, but people still stared. I wondered if they, too, thought she looked nervous. She said, "You wouldnít breach our confidence, would you, Mr. Cole?"
     "No, maíam. I wouldnít."
     She looked back at Sid Markowitz. "Peter said we could trust him. Peter said heís the best there is at this kind of thing, and that he is absolutely trustworthy." Trustworthy. I liked that. She turned back to me. "Peter likes you quite a bit, you know."
     "Yes. Itís mutual." Peter Alan Nelsen was the worldís third most successful director, right behind Spielberg and Lucas. Action adventure stuff. I had done some work for him once, and he valued the results. 
     Markowitz said, "Hey, Peterís a pal, but heís not paid to worry about you. I wanna be sure about this guy."
     I made a zipper move across my mouth. "I promise, Sid. I wonít breathe a word."
     He looked uncertain.
     "Not for less than twenty-five. For twenty-five all bets are off." Sid Markowitz crossed his arms and sat back, his lips a tight little pucker. "Oh, thatís just great. Thatís wonderful. A comedian." A waiter with a tan as rich as brown leather appeared, and the three of us sat without speaking as he served our food. I had ordered the mahi-mahi salad with a raspberry vinaigrette dressing. Sid Markowitz was having the duck tortellini. Jodi Taylor was having water. Perhaps she had eaten here before.
     I tasted the mahi-mahi. Dry.
     When the waiter was gone, Jodi Taylor quietly said, "What do you know about me?"
     "Sid faxed a studio press release and a couple of articles to me when he called."
     "Did you read them?"
     "Yes, maíam." All three articles had said pretty much the same thing, most of which I had known. Jodi Taylor was the star of the new hit television series, Songbird, in which she played the loving wife of a small town Nebraskan sheriff and the mother of five blond ragamuffin children who juggled her family with her dreams of becoming a singer. Television. The PR characterized Songbird as a thoughtful series which stressed traditional values, and family and church groups around the nation had agreed. Their support had made Songbird an unexpected dramatic hit, regularly smashing its time slot competition, and major corporate sponsors had lined up to take advantage of the showís appeal. Jodi Taylor had been given the credit, with Variety citing her Ďwarmth, humor, and sincerity as the strong and loving center of her family.í There was talk of an Emmy. Songbird had been on for sixteen weeks, and now, as if overnight, Jodi Taylor was a star.
     She said, "Iím an adopted child, Mr. Cole."
     "Okay." The People article had mentioned that.
     She said, "Iím thirty-six years old. Iím getting close to forty, and there are things that I want to know." She said it quickly, as if she wanted to get it said so that we could move on.
     "Do you want to locate your birth parents?"
     "No. That isnít what this is about."
     Sid Markowitz said, "Weíre not looking for a big thing here, Cole. In and out, answer the questions, let the woman get on with her life."
     "In and out."
     Jodi Taylor nodded. "I have questions and I want answers. Am I prone to breast or ovarian cancer? Is there some kind of disease thatíll show up if I have children? You can understand that, canít you?" She nodded again, encouraging my understanding.
     "You want your medical history."
     She looked relieved. "Thatís exactly right." It was a common request from adopted children, and I had done jobs like this before.
     "Okay, Ms. Taylor. What do you know about your birth?"
     "Nothing. I donít know anything. All I have is my birth certificate, but it doesnít tell us anything."
     Sid Markowitz took a legal envelope from his jacket and removed a Louisiana birth certificate with an impressed state seal. The birth certificate said that her name was Judith Marie Taylor and that her mother was Cecilia Burke Taylor and her father was one Steven Edward Taylor and that her place of birth was Ville Platte, Louisiana. The birth certificate gave her date of birth as July 9, thirty-six years ago, but it listed no time of birth, nor a weight, nor an attending physician or hospital. I was born at 5:14 on a Tuesday morning and, because of that, had always thought of myself as a morning person. I wondered how I would think of myself if I didnít know that. She said, "Cecilia Taylor and Steven Taylor are my adoptive parents."
     "Do they have any information about your birth?"
     "No. They adopted me through the state, and they werenít given any more information than what you see on the birth certificate."
     A family of five was shown to a window table behind us, and a tall woman with pale hair was staring at Jodi. She had come in with an overweight man and two children and an older woman who was probably the grandmother. The older woman looked as if sheíd be more at home at a diner in Topeka. The overweight man carried a Minolta. Tourists.
     "Have you tried to find out about yourself through the state?"
     "Yes." She took out a business card and handed it to me. "Iím using an attorney in Baton Rouge, but the state records are sealed. That was Louisiana law at the time of my adoption, and remains the law today. She tells me that weíve exhausted all regular channels, and weíre at a dead end. She recommended that I hire a private investigator, and Peter recommended you. If you agree to help, youíll need to coordinate what you do through her."
     I looked at the card. Sonnier, Melancon, & Burke, Attorneys at Law. And under that, Lucille Chenier, Associate. There was an address in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
     Sid leaned forward, giving me the frog again. "Maybe now you know why Iím making the big deal about keeping this secret. Some scumbag tabloid would pay a fortune for this. ĎFamous actress searches for real parents.í"
     Jodi Taylor said, "My mom and dad are my real parents."
     Sid made the little hand move. "Sure, kid. You bet."
     She said, "I mean it, Sid." Her voice was tense.
     The tall woman with the pale hair said something to the overweight man and he looked our way, too. The older woman was looking around, but you could tell she didnít see us.
     Jodi said, "If you find these people, I have no wish to meet them, and I donít want them to know who I am. I donít want anyone to know that youíre doing this, and I want you to promise me that anything you find out about me or my biological relatives will remain absolutely confidential between us. Do you promise that?"
     Sid said, "They find out theyíre related to Jodi Taylor, they might take advantage." He rubbed his thumb across his fingertips. Money.
     Jodi Taylor was still with me, her eyes locked on mine as if this was the most important thing in the world. "Do you swear that whatever you find will stay between us?"
     "The card says confidential, Ms. Taylor. If I work for you, Iím working for you."
     Jodi rocked softly and looked at Sid. Sid spread his hands. He said, "Whatever you want to do, kid."
     She looked back at me, and nodded. "Hire him."
     I said, "I canít do it from here. Iíll have to go to Louisiana, and, possibly, other places, and, if I do, the expenses could be considerable."
     Sid said, "So whatís new?"
     "My fee is three thousand dollars, plus the expenses."
     Sid Markowitz took out a check and a pen and wrote without comment.
     "Iíll want to speak with the attorney. I may have to discuss what I find with her. Is that okay?"
     Jodi Taylor said, "Of course. Iíll call her this afternoon and tell her to expect you. You can keep her card." She glanced at the door, anxious to leave. You hire the detective, you let him worry about it.
     Sid made a writing motion in the air and the waiter brought the check.
     The woman with the pale hair looked our way again, then spoke to her husband. The two of them stood, and came over, the man holding his camera.
     I said, "Weíve got company."
     Jodi Taylor and Sid Markowitz turned just as they arrived. The man was grinning as if he had just made thirty-second degree Mason. The woman said, "Excuse us, but are you Jodi Taylor?" In the space of a breath Jodi Taylor put away the things that troubled her and smiled the smile that thirty million Americans saw every week. It was worth seeing. Jodi Taylor was thirty-six years old, and beautiful in the way that only women with a measure of maturity can be beautiful. Not like in a fashion magazine. Not like a model. There was a quality of realness about her that let you feel that you might meet her at a supermarket or in church or at the PTA. She had soft hazel eyes and dark skin and one front tooth slightly overlapped the other. When she gave you the smile her heart smiled, too, and you felt it was genuine. Maybe it was that quality that was making her a star. "Iím Jodi Taylor," she said.
     The overweight man said, "Miss Taylor, could I get a picture of you and Denise?"
     Jodi looked at the woman. "Are you Denise?"
     Denise said, "Itís so wonderful to meet you. We love your show."
     Jodi smiled wider, and if you had never before met or seen her, in that moment you would fall in love. She offered her hand, and said, "Lean close and letís get our picture."
     The overweight man beamed like a six-year-old on Christmas morning. Denise leaned close and Jodi took off her sunglasses and the maitre dí and two of the waiters hovered, nervous. Sid waved them away.
     The overweight man snapped the picture, then said how much everybody back home loved Songbird, and then they went back to their table, smiling and pleased with themselves. Jodi Taylor replaced the sunglasses and folded her hands in her lap and stared at some indeterminate point beyond my shoulder, as if whatever she saw had drawn her to a neutral place.
     I said, "That was very nice of you. Iíve been with several people who would not have been as kind."
     Sid said, "Money in the bank. You see how they love her?"
     Jodi Taylor looked at Sid Markowitz without expression, and then she looked back at me. Her eyes seemed tired and obscured by something that intruded. "Yes, well. If thereís anything else you need, please call Sid."
     She gathered her things and stood to leave. Business was finished.
     I stayed seated. "What are you afraid of, Ms. Taylor?"
     Jodi Taylor walked away from the table and out the door without answering.
     Sid Markowitz said, "Forget it. You know how it is with actresses."
     Outside, I watched Jodi Taylor and Sid Markowitz drive away in Markowitzís twelve cylinder Jaguar while a parking attendant who looked like Fabio ran to get my car. Neither Sid nor Jodi waved as they left, and neither of them had said good-bye, but whatís mere rudeness to a tough guy like me?
     From the parking lot, you could look down on the beach and see young men and women in wetsuits carrying short pointy boogie boards into the surf. They would run laughing into the surf where they would belly flop onto their boards and paddle out past the breakwater where other surfers sat with their legs hanging down, bobbing in the water, waiting for a wave. A little swell would come, and they would paddle furiously to catch its crest. They would stand and ride the little wave into the shallows where they would turn around and paddle out to wait some more. They did it again and again, and the waves were always small, but maybe each time they paddled out they were thinking that the next wave would be the big wave, the one that would make all the effort have meaning. Most people are like that, and, like most people, the surfers probably hadnít yet realized that the process was the payoff, not the waves. When they were paddling, they looked very much like sea lions and, every couple of years or so, a passing great white shark would get confused and a board would come back but not the surfer.
     Fabio brought my car and I drove back along the Pacific Coast Highway toward Los Angeles.
     I had thought that Jodi Taylor might be pleased when I agreed to take the job, but she wasnít. Yet she still wanted to hire me, still wanted me to uncover the elements of her past. Since my own history was known to me, it held no fear. I thought about how I might feel if the corridor of my birth held only closed doors. Maybe, like Jodi Taylor, I would be afraid.
     By the time I turned away from the water toward my office, a dark anvil of clouds had formed on the horizon and the ocean had grown the color of raw steel.
     A storm was raging, and I thought that it might find its way to shore.


   
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